The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:
“Jean-Ah Poquelin” by George Washington Cable
Cable’s tale (from his 1879 collection Old Creole Days) establishes its American Gothic credentials from the outset. Set in the New Orleans area at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, the narrative opens with a look at “an old colonial plantation-house half in ruin” that “stood aloof from civilization” behind a chained and padlocked gate. The surrounding property is marked by an alligator-filled marsh and “two lone forest-trees, dead cypresses, […] dotted with roosting vultures.” This decayed estate is a shunned place, largely because of its hermit-like inhabitant. The eponymous Jean Marie Poquelin, a former indigo planter and slave trader, is suspected of misdeed (either fratricide or secret imprisonment) involving his thirty-years-younger half-Brother Jacques, who disappeared seven years earlier while accompanying Jean on a slave-buying expedition to the Guinea coast. Thus, to the local Louisianan community, “the name of Jean Marie Poquelin became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and hideous nursery fiction.” The old man has been turned into a scapegoat, blamed for sundry adversities:
To the Creoles–to the incoming lower class of superstitious Germans, Irish, Sicilians, and others–he became an omen and embodiment of public and private ill-fortune. Upon him all the vagaries of their superstition gathered and grew. If a house caught fire, it was imputed to his machinations. Did a woman go off in a fit, he had bewitched her. Did a child stray off for an hour, the mother shivered with the apprehension that Jean Poquelin had offered him to strange gods. The house was the subject of every bad boy’s invention who loved to contrive ghostly lies. “As long as that house stands we shall have bad luck. Do you not see our pease and beans dying, our cabbages and lettuce going to seed and our gardens turning to dust, while every day you can see it raining in the woods? The rain will never pass old Poquelin’s house. He keeps a fetich. He has conjured the whole Fauborg St. Marie. And why, the old wretch? Simply because our playful and innocent children call after him as he passes.”
Perhaps most damning of all in the eyes of his contemporaries, old Jean has resisted the in-roads of modernization (he literally tries to prevent a new road being created across his land). A less-than-scrupulous “Building and Improvement Committee,” believing that the Poquelin property will make “a capital site for a market-house,” repeatedly attempts to get the owner to sell off. Hoping to gain leverage by proving that the “old villain” has his long-missing “brother locked up in that old house,” the Committee sends an investigator to break in. Upon encroaching, though, the investigator spies a “ghostly white” figure on the grounds. Accompanied by a “strange, sickening odor,” this mysterious figure suggests the walking dead. Naturally, the investigator is in dread at first, but after he realizes what he is witnessing, he henceforth becomes a surprising defender of old Jean’s reputation.
As if Cable’s tale wasn’t steeped in the American Gothic already, its climax features a mob scene. The stoked locals seize upon the idea of harassing Jean into submission with clamor: they decided to “shivaree him.” But the raucous rabble does an about face when it catches glimpse of a coffin, and the pale figure. The mystery is solved at last: “beyond the bier [of the deceased Jean], with eyes cast down and labored step, walked the living remains–all that was left–of little Jacques Poquelin, the long-hidden brother–a leper, as white as snow.”
In his headnote to the story, editor Charles Crow writes that “Cable has constructed a richly symbolic account of the legacy of slavery.” Indeed, “Jean-Ah Poquelin” suggests the rot and ruin resulting from the peculiar institution (Jacques presumably contracted leprosy in Africa while accompanying his brother on a slave-buying trip), but the narrative also forms a masterpiece of Gothic suspense. Cable’s tale can be seen to influence later writers like William Faulkner (the modernity-averse outcast in “A Rose for Emily”; the family member hidden in a decrepit mansion in Absalom, Absalom!) and Harper Lee (the vindicated boogeyman in To Kill a Mockingbird), but its own classic status cannot be overlooked. This is one of the most representative pieces encountered in Crow’s anthology to date.